Hiring an Executive Coach

Barry Goldberg On Leadership

Hiring an Executive Coach
(Leon | Unsplash)

Executive and leadership coaching has become trendy. Coaches are popping up everywhere providing coaching services on a wide range of human endeavor. But not all coaches are developed and trained equally. And since there is no licensure or regulated requirement for calling oneself a coach, finding and hiring the right professional can be challenging.

Finding the right resource, setting up the engagement, clarifying success and following through on measurement can make an executive coaching engagement a wildly profitable endeavor for client companies, especially in support of senior-level leaders. However, what people do not know about hiring a coach far too often compromises the work and can even do more harm than good. There are a number of reasons that coaching can go astray.

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Anyone can call themself an executive coach. Perhaps more dangerous, while there are standards for coaching schools, they are set by associations or even private entities that can be designed to look and sound impressive but have a dubious grounding in professional standards. The largest credentialing body is the International Coaching Federation, which sets standards of practice and has an increasingly rigorous process for the training, certification and credentialing of coaches at three levels: associate, professional and master. 

While the ICF maintains communities of practice for various topical concentrations, the educational and certification standards do not differentiate between personal/life coaching and executive/leadership coaching. Some of the most talented executive coaches I have worked with had no professional coach training; however, hiring a credentialed coach does at least ensure a level of education and experience associated with the level of credentials the coach has earned.

In the most theoretical sense, anyone can coach anyone about anything. Unlike athletics coaching, which assumes that the coach has a background and experience in the athletic endeavor in which they are coaching, no such requirement is part of coach training. 

Coaching is, in its purest version, a specialized form of facilitation. A coach’s role is to facilitate the thinking, problem-solving, ideation and follow-through of a client, as well as to be an accountability partner. In some ways, that argues against too much direct experience in the client’s role and accountability. For example, rarely is a coach hired for a CFO to improve their technical knowledge of financial operations, governance and compliance. More likely, a coaching engagement at that level would have more to do with organizational leadership or the development of mentoring skills. My last CFO client entered coaching as part of a preparation as a candidate for the CEO slot. 

A successful coaching engagement includes clear goals as observed by those who work with the client. I generally begin a coaching engagement with a 360-degree feedback instrument. The data from that process allows the coach, client and the engagement sponsor to agree on meaningful, measurable goals for the coaching work. Without that benchmark, goals are often not very specific and progress is hard to measure.

I generally prefer the stakeholder methodology I trained in as part of the coaching team at Marshall Goldsmith & Associates. By using internal feedback to inform a client’s goals for coaching, measurement of success becomes less subjective. The process is explained thoroughly in Marshall’s book “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.” The involvement of internal stakeholders in not only setting goals for the coaching engagement but in evaluating progress transforms a private and almost secretive process into a powerful organizational lever.

Lastly, in coaching chemistry matters. No matter how well-trained, how experienced, how clever or how dedicated a coach is, in the absence of a good chemistry match between coach and client little or no progress can be made. More to the point, a relationship of trust and solid chemistry allows for clear and powerful communications between coach and client. For that reason, I generally encourage a company to screen several coaches, especially for a senior leader. If the client interviews three qualified and vetted coaches, they can choose purely on the chemistry evident in the initial conversations — and regardless of the choice — they will work with a qualified coach. n

I. Barry Goldberg is a credentialed executive coach and Vistage Peer Advisory Group chair in central Arkansas.